There’s a video floating around of a downhill race from the 1990s. It’s awash with neon hues, mullets, floppy helmets, tiller-length stems and bars narrower than my shoulders. But that’s not really what it documents. What it really shows is just how poorly made most mountain bike products were made back then. Bikes didn’t stop. They didn’t turn, either. Worse, wheels that were only 26-inches in diameter were turned into tacos faster faster than chickens in an LA food truck.
Honestly, it amazes me that any of us who owned mountain bikes in 1990 are still in the sport.
So when I tell you that if you give me a choice between quality and cost and I’ll take quality every time, such a preference is borne of experience, and maybe pain. Sometimes it’s the wallet variety, sometimes it’s the ER variety. I’d rather wait and save or buy less other stuff in order to purchase something I believe will last.
The place I most often see cost-saving measures turn out poorly is in the bearings and hub shells. With sealed bearings, bad seals or a soft hub shell will lead to premature bearing death—sometimes even a premature wheel death. In cup-and-cone bearings, bad seals let grit enter that ends up scoring the races and bearings and you end up with wheels that can be rescued once with new stainless balls, but it’s only a temporary save.
All this is to say my desire to find products that last often conflicts with my desire to find solid products at a reasonable price. The wheels above are a study in this issue.
These are the Boyd Cycling Kanuga mountain bike wheels, in the 29er version; they also come in a 27.5-inch version. This wheelset features an aluminum rim, a CNC-machined boost hubset, Sapim CX-Ray spokes laced with brass nipples (yes, brass, not alloy) for increased durability, in a 2x pattern. The front wheel gets 28 spokes while the rear wheel sports 32.
Supposing for a second that we popped these wheels in the Wayback Machine (along with a bike on which to ride them) and showed up at the Kamikaze Downhill, circa 1992. It would be tantamount to showing off a Nissan Leaf to Henry Ford.
Hell, that’s not even a Tesla!
So what’s changed? The rim extrusions are much stronger, partly for the alloy used, partly where the material is placed. CX-Ray spokes are to the garden-variety stainless steel spokes used in machine-laced Taiwanese-built wheels what Pliny the Elder is to Michelob Light. Stronger in every possible sense of the word. Then there’s boost spacing. Increasing hub spacing from 100 to 110mm and axle diameter to 15mm (not to mention losing the quick release skewer) in the front and jumping from 135mm to 142mm and ditching the quick release for a 12mm thru-axle gives the wheel better purchase and increases the triangulation of the spokes to the rim.
Boyd’s Kanuga rims measure 22mm deep, 29mm wide and have a 25mm inner width. The rim has a claimed weight of 400g for the 29 and 360g for the 27.5. The Quest freehub features a six-pawl design that engages alternate sets of three pawls. As a result, engagement is a very quick 4.3 degrees. Quest hubs take centerlock rotors.
Tire mounting was a snap because the Kanuga rim features a deep central channel to give the tire room to to move past the rim. The wheels come taped and with removable-core valve stems installed. Once I had the tires seated, I removed the valve cores, squirted in a couple of ounces of sealant and then pumped them back up. I’ve noticed I usually need to do a couple of cycles of sloshing the sealant around and then pumping the tire up before they are ready, but the Kanuga’s were relatively quick in this regard.
I spent a year doing nothing but fits, complete bike builds and wheel building. I got to be a really fine wheel builder, which is why, now that I’m so out of practice, I get so nervous before putting a wheel in a truing stand. During that time I learned how the harder I worked to equalize tension on the spokes the longer the wheel stayed in true. I could use a lesser rim and lighter weight spokes but if I got the tension equalized throughout the wheel, it would stay true even through abusive riding.
I can tell you the Kanugas impressed me for how straight they have remained. But a straight wheel only means so much. With 29er wheels the factor that truly makes a difference in my riding experience is just how stiff that wheel is. I only notice tire squirm if pressure is insanely low, like 12 psi on a 29×2.4 tire. But when a wheel flexes out of plane through hard cornering I get nervous and hit the brakes. Perceptually, I can’t tell you that’s what’s happening in the moment, but I know that the bike’s tracking is off and once the bike’s handling becomes unpredictable I hit the brakes; other riders can push through that, but I’m a brake tapper in those circumstances.
The Kanuga wheels are sold individually. The front wheel goes for $350 with Boyd’s Quest Hub, or $550 with a White Industries hub. The rear is $450, or $650 with the White Industries hub.
I’ve been riding these wheels for more than six months and have put them through the toughest terrain I’ve ever willingly ridden. They’ve spent more time in the air than any other wheels I’ve ever ridden, which may have been unkind, if not particularly lengthy. During that time, I’ve asked myself repeatedly if this $800 set of wheels lacks anything I want from a wheelset.
I’ve yet to come up with a single, “Oh, I wish they….” Sure, they could be lighter. They could offer even faster engagement. They could be less expensive. But this is reality, and what you get for $800 is enough to make me wonder why I might spend more. I see the biggest selling point for carbon fiber rims being improved aerodynamics and that’s not really a concern with mountain bike wheels. Boyd suggests these are all-purpose wheels. I have to agree.
Final thought: I worry about my kids. I don’t want to worry about my wheels.